I am going through Outlier dictionary for character 求:

求 depicts a centipede or millipede, indicating the original meaning “myriapod (a type of insect with a lot of legs).” It was borrowed for its sound (via sound loan) to represent the meaning “to seek, request.”

I do not understand what "sound loan" means. How is “to seek, request” the "sound loan" of 求 ?

Does it mean qiú was already in use for “to seek, request” without any character attached to pronunciation qiú?

2 Answers 2


In the Outlier entry there is a link to a gloss explaining the term:

Sound Loan is when a character gets borrowed to represent a word for its sound, rather than its form.

Ex. The form 我 wǒ which today means "I; me" was originally a picture of a type of weapon that consisted of a handle and a blade with saw-like teeth. The name of the weapon sounded similar to the word for "I; me," so it was borrowed to represent that word. Eventually, the meaning "I; me" took over completely and the form 我 was no longer used to represent the name of the weapon.

Ex. The form 其 that now represents the word qí "his/her/its" originally depicted a basket. That word meaning "basket" is now written 箕 jī.

In Outlier you will often see the ○ icon in the meaning trees to indicate a phonetic loan. Which are generally defined as a:

character that is "borrowed" to write another homophonous or near-homophonous morpheme

So, yes, your assumption was correct - “to seek, request” originally existed as qiú without a specific character associated with it. The character「求」was then later borrowed as the readings matched.

  • for e.g 其 - was used to represent basket in Oracle bone/Seal script earlier , but never meant to mean his, her? in oracle bones or seal scripts no character for his, her ? at all?
    – user27485
    Apr 26, 2021 at 23:13
  • Can you provide references to this statement: [ “to seek, request” originally existed as qiú without a specific character associated with it. The character「求」was then later borrowed as the readings matched.]
    – r13
    Apr 27, 2021 at 23:49
  • @r13 黃德寬,2007《古文字譜系疏證》,北京:商務印書館, p. 482 - the above information - including the question - is all based on the information found in Outlier, the reference is the reference that they provide.
    – Mou某
    Apr 28, 2021 at 6:08

求 didn't mean "beg/request" initially. The meaning of beg/request was borrowed due to it having same sound. Phonetic loan characters 假借字 are one of the 六書. 求 is a classic example of 假借字. Another example is 北 (two people sitting back to back), which originally meant back. 北 had its meaning borrowed for "north" and the character with "back" definition is now 背

This is the first time I've heard of 求 as a centipede. The classic interpretation I know for 求 has always been a sort of combination comprising 毛 and 衣 meaning fur coat, where the character that means fur coat is now written as 裘. I'm guessing the centipede meaning is now written as 蛷. Both 裘 and 蛷 are fairly obscure characters, and are almost never really seen in modern usage.


  • 1
    thanks. but before 求 , chinese did not use request/beg in any of their scripts?
    – user27485
    Apr 26, 2021 at 23:19
  • 1
    well, there is another character 乞 that also means beg, itself a phonetic loan from 气, but i am less familiar with reading the very old scripts though
    – Fishuman
    Apr 27, 2021 at 14:45

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